Exhalation: Stories

Ted Chiang

Book cover

I rarely feel that I would like to be a writer, but I do when I read Ted Chiang’s stories. This is probably in large part due to the very interesting “Story Notes” he provides at the end of his books, which give a couple of paragraphs on the ideas that each story grew from and how he developed them. (I wish more authors would do this!) If I wrote fiction, I would want it to be in Chiang’s style: sf/f that plays out the consequences of a core idea, which is also suffused with a core of humanism and tenderness.

I was so glad to see that Chiang came out with a new book of stories, after having loved his first collection “Stories of Your Life.” The quality of this new collection meets the very high standard of the earlier one. The only stories here that I wasn’t as impressed by were the shorter ones (“What’s Expected of Us,” “Dacey’s Patent Automatic Nanny,” and “The Great Silence”), which I felt were maybe thrown in by the publisher to fill out the length of the book. But the longer ones are all great. A few comments on favorites:
-“The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” is the story I was wishing for but didn’t get when I read Saladin Ahmed’s “Throne of the Crescent Moon”–sf/f in a Middle Eastern setting that doesn’t just use the mythology and lore of the region, but also incorporates some of its unique world-views. The concept of a time-travel story where history is fixed, and yet this is not primarily presented as a barrier or tragedy, is very original.
-“The Lifecycle of Software Objects” is extraordinary and was my favorite of the collection. The “digients” Jax, Marco, and Polo make for very memorable characters. The story is a beautiful exploration of personhood and the inevitable gaps between virtual and physical realms. I wish someone would make a movie of this novella!
-“The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling” nicely interleaves two stories separated in time and place that are only related in concept. I especially loved the modern/near-future story exploring how relationships are affected by a technology that provides perfect-fidelity recall of past events in our lives. The twist in the story is shocking and yet, I felt, quite relatable.
-“Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom” is a very creative elaboration of the many-worlds hypothesis of quantum mechanics, and the effect that hard evidence thereof would have on people’s lives, particularly our sense of morality and what it means to be a good person.

My Goodreads rating: 5 stars